Obstacles for Foreign Hikers
Of course I am not speaking for all the foreigners that have hiked or are planning to hike in the US, but I do think that for quite some of us there are common difficulties.
Apologies if I go into too much detail, but I know I personally wanted more information on some subjects, which was hard to find. So for the next person looking for more info:
Getting a Visa
I was most nervous for this one. Since I can not enter on a 3 month ESTA visa, I needed to get a so called B2 Visa, which means I can enter the USA for 6 months a year, for 10 years long. A little crazy no, valid for 10 years? But it was the only option, so I went for it. Scoured the Internet for information on the process and on what to expect and bring. Did not find much information on other Europeans applying for this Visa with the intention to hike, just a whole lot of stories of people trying and a few times failing to get a Visa for traveling or visiting family.
So how does it work: you need to fill out an Online DS-160 form, whereby you need to fill out a lot of details, your plan for traveling (like where you are staying: ehm the whole East Coast? Just filled in a hostels name near Springer Mountain), if you are aligned with any terrorist groups (really? who is going to say yes?), when and for how long you visited the US before (had to do some major digging in my old email inbox). Then you make an appointment for an interview at the US Embassy in Amsterdam, whereby the first availability was in 3 weeks.
In those 3 weeks I collected all things I could find that proved my connection with the Netherlands and how much I want to stay here, and not in the US. Brought my bank statements (with official stamps), payslips, job contract, letter of intention that they will hire me back, rental contract, the AT guidebook, an AT schedule of hiking (general one I took from some website), passport and passport picture.
Arrived with my big folder full of all the files and saw already a big group of people standing outside, all with similar amounts of paperwork. Slowly they started letting in some people, after asking people for their name and time of appointment. It was quite funny to see them try and understand all the very foreign names and find them on their list. Inside they check your appointment paper, ask you to leave behind all your belongings, except for your phone and paperwork and finally you go through a security scan. I thought the general mood in the embassy would be one of cool professionalism, but I was delighted to see it was more of a helpful cheery professionalism!
In the next room two ladies checked your paperwork and asked what you were applying for and why. The man at the window then took my passport and asked me to wait for my name to be called. I could already hear the discussions from other people with the interviewers, I think one girl visited Iran a couple of times and was thoroughly questioned why and why alone and why go again. I was called: a serious man had my passport, asked why I was applying. I said I wanted to do a long distance trail, from Georgia to Maine. The Appalachian Trail? That is correct. You are going alone? Yes. Okay, your Visa is hereby approved, but I would recommend one thing. Okay? Not walk alone!
And that was it!
The US not using the metric system
Do you know how annoying it is to read stories about the Appalachian Trail, check gear lists and try and read a guidebook while having to look up every sort of measurement so you can actually understand what they are talking about? Temperature, weight, distance and dimensions, all of it is different from our almost universally used metric system, which means that I need to do mental calculations every time someone mentions a measurement of some kind. I have no doubt that in time I probably will get used to it, but in the meantime I think I will put all the conversions in my phone to make sure 🙂
Since I am not living in the US, it is a lot harder to organise everything. Dropboxes are going to be way too expensive and complicated to do, so I need to depend completely on what provisions I can get on the trail in towns and such. I cannot send back cold weather clothes when it gets hotter, or vice versa. So I do not need to do a lot of planning (food boxes), but I do need to be completely sure of what kind of gear is going to last me all three seasons without getting in the way. Also if I am in any kind of trouble (injury or otherwise) there are no relatives or friends nearby to help. This means I need to double check my health/travel insurance and be ready to depend on myself in all kinds of situations.
It might be me, but since researching gear for the Appalachian, I get the idea that the US is a lot more innovative in terms of gear than Europe. For sure, we have a lot of gear available, but most of them are bigger companies that are not really putting an emphasis on lighter, newer gear. When I go to the best known outdoor store in the Netherlands called Bever, most of the employees do not know about quilts, trailrunners, tarptents and lightweight backpacks. When I discuss it with them, most of them still recommend the heavier duty stuff we know so well here. And since most of the brands recommended in gear reviews on the blogs and forums are American, it is really hard to get it or even find an alternative.
Since I had a gift card for the outdoor store, I did pick out a backpack from them, but I did first make a list of all the lightweight, recommended backpacks by brands that were sold here. All the other gear I collected through diverse channels (tent: online marketplace, quilt: tiny company in France, waterfilter: online prepper store, shoes: went to the only trailrunner dedicated store in Holland that sold the Altra’s I wanted). Online seems to be the place to be, but I still will have to wait to buy some gear once I arrive (gaiters, AWOL guide book, darn tough socks) in the US.
I think I know the US, but in reality I do not. Sure, I have visited the southwest (twice) and Alaska as a tourist, I watch a lot (a lot!) of American movies and series, listen to the podcast This American Life, but I know I still will need to learn and get used to a lot once I arrive. Having studied Cultural Anthropology, I’d like to think that I have an open mind and that I am fairly able to adjust to another culture, but the reality is that it is going to be trial and error.
Things I am worried about: the tipping culture, lack of public transport, necessity of hitchhiking, recognizing poison ivy.
Things I am looking forward to: food!!, large portions of everything, friendly people.
But there is always going to be the unknown and I just need to deal with that on my trip!
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